Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East

The documentary “Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East” is now available on Amazon Prime. It covers primarily the USSR’s struggle during the Second World War against Germany, beginning with Operation Barbarossa. It was made for Russian television by Russians and is based on original newsreel footage, CGI, and interviews with German and Soviet soldiers. An English narration replaced the original Russian one but the maps showing fronts and movements, which are excellent, are still in Russian.

It’s interesting to see how such a titanic event as WW2 is portrayed through the eyes of others, but especially the Russians, whose heavy lifting during the war doesn’t get much coverage in American cinema and curricula. (The D-Day landings resulted in about 2,500 American fatalities and about 2,000 from other allied nations. Such losses would have been barely worth mentioning in the East.) Understanding the Russian view of WW2 is important to understanding how they see themselves even today.

Given the political climate of the Age of Putin, I was wary, thinking it might be a slick propaganda piece, and they did slide quickly by some incidents that don’t reflect well on the USSR. However, overall, I thought it was a balanced presentation of Soviet and German conduct during the war and it filled some gaps in my knowledge. There are reasons, after all, for which the Germans did not arrive in Moscow as fast as their tanks could get there and there are reasons for which Soviet and German losses were so great throughout the almost four years of conflict.

The coverage is comprehensive–18 episodes of about 45 minutes each–including more detail about the land war than I’d ever seen before, but also episodes on the war in the air, the sea war, the role of partisans, and the war of spies. The last episode covers the USSR’s brief but “tipping” involvement in the war against Japan.  Here is a list of episodes:

  1. Operation Barbarossa
  2. The Battle of Kiev
  3. The Defence of Sevastopol
  4. The Battle of Moscow
  5. The Siege of Leningrad
  6. Rzhev
  7. The Battle of Stalingrad
  8. The Battle for Caucasus
  9. The Battle of Kursk
  10. The Liberation of Ukraine
  11. Operation Bagration
  12. War in the Air
  13. War in the Sea
  14. The Partisan Movement
  15. Secret Intelligence of the Red Army
  16. The Battle for Germany
  17. Battle of Berlin
  18. War Against Japan

The considerations presented, along with some from another interesting documentary, “The Price of Empire“, have really opened my eyes to how resource-strapped the Axis militaries were during WW2 and how that affected their strategies.

It was sad to note how many Soviet officers were executed during the war and even after, having returned from prison camps only to face trail. What a relief Stalin’s death in 1953 must have been to everybody.

Another thing that was particularly interesting was the episode on Operation Bagration, in which the Soviets obliterated the German Army Group Center, destroying men and materials the Germans could no longer replace, and forcing the German armies to the North and South to withdraw completely from Soviet territory.

So how did the West help in this struggle, according to the documentary?  A lot of it comes down to those resources the Axis lacked. The importance of Lend Lease is given its due with specific mention and appraisal of American tanks, trucks, and aircraft. The knowledge that the British and Americans would open another front did keep German divisions tied down in France. The British defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and American and British air raids on Germany meant that the Axis armies in the East never really got the air cover they needed, the near destruction of Soviet air power in the early days of Barbarossa notwithstanding.

A few criticisms, based on what I think I know from other sources:

  • Generally, it goes light on Stalin, and lays on his staff, the Stavka, the disastrous “no retreat” orders that allowed the Germans to capture hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers in the early stages of the invasion. It does not fail to lay on Hitler the consequences of his own such orders.
  • It completely ignores the Soviet army’s sitting on its hands just outside Warsaw while the Germans crushed the Polish resistance when it rose up in the city in 1944.
  • They mention collaboration by “nationalists” with the Germans but don’t go into much detail about why people would have considered the German invasion a liberation.

It’s well worth a watch to appreciate the cost that was paid to defeat the Axis, even if your eyes glaze over a bit during the recounting of some of the minutiae.



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“The Forum” – Another Great Podcast from BBC Four

For years, BBC Four’s “In Our Time” podcast has been my go-to source for material with which to create “Radio MIKE” in preparation for road trips, flights, and long walks. But BBC Four hosts many other interesting programs.  “The Forum” is one I’ve enjoyed as much recently.

Hosted by Bridget Kendall, “The Forum” is a series of moderated discussions by a small international panel of experts on a selected topic (perhaps suggested by listeners) about which people think they know quite a lot (or enough) but they really they don’t because there’s far more going on there than one would know unless one had really studied it.

I just listened to a fascinating review of the KGB over the decades. Now I’m in the middle of an episode discussing the Bronze Age.

Other recent episodes cover:

  • Mata Hari: Dancer, Lover, Spy. What is the truth behind the legendary WWI spy-seductress?
  • Fire: How Climate Change is Altering our Attitudes to Wildfires. Bridgett Kindall and guests explore ideas about how wildfires should be dealt with
  • The New Curators: Who Decides What’s Culturally Important? How the idea of curation has radically changed
  • Balloons and How They Changed the World. The extraordinary impact of balloons on human society
  • Reawakening Language. How can we save or reawaken dying languages?

As with all these BBC podcasts of their radio shows, one can listen from the BBC site or download through iTunes (and maybe other places that I don’t know about.)

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Finished Reading “Founding Brothers” by J. Ellis.

I finished reading a book. “Founding Brothers” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Joseph Ellis. It is a collection of six stories that, together, explore the complicated interactions among six men whose thoughts and actions were essential to the founding and early years of the Great American Experiment: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr.  It’s a comprehensive view—warts and all.  And definitely there are warts, big warts, warts that would be career-ending today.  I think the author does a good job pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of his subjects and how they affected their relationships and, therefore, the early history of the United States. But, if our founders were not the flawless paragons of sagacity some have imagined, it’s inspiring to me that those flawed individuals accomplished great things nevertheless.

This is not a book to read if loving one’s country depends on seeing it through rose-colored glasses or doing backflips of reason to justify every aspect of its history or its every action. It is documentation of something well known to true lovers of history—that the founding of the United States was a lot messier than most people who like to spout off about “intent of the founders” or a “return” to any kind of political virtue care to admit.

The reading left me with several thoughts:

The tension between centralized and distributed power has existed from the beginning. Washington and Adams, the pragmatists, wanted a central government powerful enough to act to preserve the integrity and independence of the United States when its main political ally and its biggest trading partner were at war. For Washington, keeping the country together was imperative, as keeping his army together during the war had been. Jefferson, the idealist, steadfastly opposed placing much power at the center, seeing it as simply substituting one foreign power for another, and sought a much looser union.

Hamilton, an advocate for commercial interests, wanted a central bank and for the federal government to build credit by assuming the debts of the states. Jefferson, Madison, and the other southerners saw this as a rip off of the southern states to benefit the northern ones and another movement of power to the center. The bank was created (for a while) and debt assumption happened (and we have benefited ever since) but deals were made. Cable news would have been ecstatic at the opportunities for coverage.

The issue of states’ rights, like Jefferson’s life, was linked from the very beginning with slavery, that great flaw in the American diamond. There is just no getting around it however much apologists raise points about differing views on tariffs. The southern states would not give up that much economic power whatever political principles they had signed onto and were adamant that the issue was Not Open for Discussion.

It’s obvious that the founders understood well the horrible contradiction of slavery with the ideals they were espousing, and knew that the country could not endure as “half slave and half free” forever. But they needed for the union to hold if it were to survive in a world full of powerful and ambitious European powers, so they entered into a grand bargain to bring the South along by removing slavery from consideration at the federal level until several decades had passed. They kicked the can down the road. The northern states either forbade slavery outright or gradually freed their slaves but the “peculiar institution” persisted as an integral part of the economy and society of the South and, when the issue resurfaced again, as it must, it did tear the country part, as the founders knew it would. It fell to a later president to make the Big Call that would start the country on the path of settling the issue.

The more I read, the more I see John Adams as the central figure in America’s struggle for independence. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Monroe, Madison, etc. all played essential roles but Adams was the one who knew and worked with all of them. His thoughts influenced everything. If the man had only had a more agreeable personality, he might not have seen fit to sign those Alien and Sedition Acts (the greatest blunder of his presidency) and history might have been kinder to him!  But then there are other calls he might not have had the “intestinal fortitude” to make had he not been so darn stubborn.

The sequel is “The Quartet” in which a cadre of eastern, intellectual elites conspire to manipulate political and social institutions to save the Republic from itself and engineer the creation of a More Perfect Union. I can’t wait to get to that one!

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How I Built This – A Great Podcast

Recently, I’ve enjoyed listening to episodes of a podcast How I Built This“. It’s about “innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.”

This NPR podcast is created by Guy Raz, who also created the popular TED Radio Hour podcast. Each episode is an interview with an entrepreneur that draws out the triumphs, failures, and luck they encountered on their way to building some of the world’s best known companies and brands. The end of every episode is a quick account of the story of a random business leader in their own words.

Recent episodes cover:

  • Whole Foods Market: John Mackey
  • Lonely Planet: Maureen & Tony Wheeler
  • Lady Gaga & Atom Factory: Troy Carter
  • Real Estate Mogul: Barbara Corcoran
  • 1-800-GOT-JUNK?: Brian Scudamore

Well worth the listen if you want to understand a bit more about the years of hard work needed to create an “overnight” success.

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures” is one of those must-see motion pictures of 2017–the story of black women who provided essential support as computers for NASA.

In that day, “computer” was a job title for a human who performed calculations on electro-mechanical devices. They were essential to engineering, financial, and other firms because they did the math until machines such as the IBM mainframe depicted in the motion picture took over that work–one of the very first examples of the job displacement by information technology that we now take for granted. By the way, one of the duties of the famous physicist Richard Feynman at Los Alamos was to break complex calculations into parts that could be performed by teams of computers.

It’s both inspiring and hard to watch. Inspiring for what they accomplished as people and as computers and, in one case, as a mathematician. Hard to watch for the society- and government-sanctioned contempt with which they were treated in the America of Jim Crow.

As well as the story, the sets were a stroll through the past of memory–rotary phones with cords, mechanical calculators, the old percolator coffee pot (best way to burn coffee to impotability!), the institutional green glazed tile walls, TVs with rabbit ears, chalk boards, and that particular variety of wall clock that I think was standard in every office and school at least through the 1980s.


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The Last Kingdom: Season 2

Finally, Netflix is streaming the second season of “The Last Kingdom“, the dramatization of Bernard Cornwell’s well researched and written “Saxon Tales“.

Uhtred, the dispossessed heir of Bebbanburg, a Saxon raised by Danes, finds himself in the service of Alfred, King of Wessex, the last real Saxon kingdom in Great Britain and a wealthy and well-organized little country. Neither man wants the company of the other but Alfred needs Uhtred’s expertise in battle, with the Danes especially, and Uhtred needs a powerful ally if he is to reclaim his home.

The major happenings in Season 2 concern Alfred’s attempt to become King of All the English while keeping the peace with the Danes. It gets a more complicated than usual when the Danes take the Mercian port of London. It gets way more complicated when the Mercians arrive to take it back.

The pressure from the Danes in relentless and Uhtred is Alfred’s go-to man-of-action although Uhtred is unruly and a dedicated pagan. Unfortunately, as a skillful fighter, an astute commander, and a man raised by Danes, Uhtred is a potential threat to every pretender on the island. This creates political enemies for him in Alfred’s court and in the Church.

I like a lot about the series although it’s pared down from Cornwell’s wonderfully detailed books. It’s bloody and muddy. It looks like the producers have gone to pains to portray the time faithfully. There’s no resemblance at all to a “Camelot”-like or Dungeons and Dragons version of the Middle Ages. There are no new great stone castles or buildings of any kind because the only such in Great Britain at the time were Roman ruins.

A touch I enjoy especially is a trick that appears when the action moves to a different setting. The name of the setting appears in Old English and morphs into Modern English. So Witanceaster becomes Winchester, Beamfleot becomes Benfleet, Dunholm becomes  Durham, Eforwic becomes York, etc.  This connects the history to the present.

Good blend of English and Scandinavian actors too.

I can’t wait for Season 3!



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Luna: Wolf Moon

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald, is the sequel of Luna: New Moon and the second novel in what I hope will be a long series. There’s so much to explore in the world (moon) McDonald has created.

Over the course of a few hours, Corta Helio, the family firm that supplies the Helium 3 that fuels the fusion reactors of Earth, has been attacked and shattered. Its principal habitat is a desolate vacuum, its important people are dead or are scattered and in hiding, and the other great families are picking over the remains. And, by the way, the great countries of Earth are concerned about that Helium 3.

As was the case in Frank Herbert’s Dune, of which McDonald’s unfolding Luna opus reminds me, the fall of a great house on the Moon is the beginning of more than it’s the end of because, for each of the big players, the assets of Corta Helio are too valuable to allow to fall into the hands of another player, and the remaining Cortas are desperate enough to take some big risks.

McDonald continues doing what he does well–throwing interesting characters into dangerous situations in societies and situations based on reasonable extrapolations from current technological and societal trends.

For a person who’s interested in space flight and emerging technologies, this series is unending entertainment and thought-provoking speculation.  McDonald seems to have done his research on libertarian ideas on how to organize a society without a government, 3D printing, orbital mechanics, current thinking on how living on the Moon might work, and … cake baking.

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